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Steve Spence

"DTR" by Annabel Banks, pub. Broken Sleep Books. 40 pp.

DTR is an acronym with more than one meaning, a fact which prefigures an ambitious first collection that feels multi-vocal and full of interesting ambiguity. Whether Deep Tendon Reflex, Determine the Relationship, Down the Road or Data Transfer Rate, we are plunged into a world which includes medical procedures (of a gynaecological nature), sexual politics, gestation, references to Catholic iconography and a sophisticated but robust language use which keeps the reader puzzling away at it and eagerly turning the page.

There’s also a science fiction aspect to DTR, allied to a concern with film culture suggested by the often ‘clipped language’ and oblique references. ‘Structured Reality’, the opening poem, for example, starts with scene-setting – ‘& let’s begin with razor-close bathing, lightish greens / easy language a skewer, a hook for the pretty-eyed twisting down steps: one, two flights to follow baby / then learn to lean your ladder against the wall    ’ – which is atmospheric but also probably made up of disconnected fragments, a pastiche of the hard-boiled and colloquial. The reference later in the poem to ‘under the skin’ which probably relates here to a monitoring device or some kind of health-connected issue (birth control, perhaps), suggests to me by word association the S/F film of the same title with Scarlet Johannsen as the alien who traps strangers in her basement where they slide beneath the surface of a sticky, permeable floor. The poem ‘Finding the edge’, slightly further on in the collection, tickles this association with ‘(something like graphene spread over the surface /
so thin you think you can walk on the water / then end up wet-footed, tricked into sinking)’. Pure conjecture on my part no doubt but this book is filled with opportunities for such ‘fortuitous connecting’, part of its charm and attraction I feel. 

In ‘Fixers (#1-3)’ we get the following:

          We need to locate the point of contact. Are you watching?
          The wind sock flutters – chukkkerchukkker – then drops. This
          could mean the airfield’s signal is lost. A dog chases its tail
          outside of the bank. The thin woman with seabeads around
          her neck, wound so tight she looks as though she is
          wearing a collar, seems afraid of the animal. She lifts her
          hands, waist high, to skitter past. This is one who has had
          fingers nipped, we think, and if we zoom in we might see
          an uneven stubbing where younger flesh was clipped. Or
          maybe she was lucky, and just lost a nail. Of course, we can
          always go the other way, and suggest the beadcollar does
          more than decorate a (bittenuglyscarred) throat.

Each of these three prose pieces involves some sort of medical disfigurement or health condition (throat and fingers above, a heart condition in the second and a hearing problem in the third) and each focusses on a particular scene in detail and then speculates around the possibilities and creates a plausible narrative. Each piece implies a cinematic observation (‘if we zoom in’) which has a slightly sinister aspect of surveillance together with a focus which veers between the objective and the prying. The sense of ‘surgical precision’ is heightened by the prescription in the third piece – ‘Just don’t forget to get in tight – mistakes are / made when you extrapolate from the general condition.’ This is also slightly at odds with the speculative nature of the analysis. I’m reminded here of the almost neurotic obsessions in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, where a distanced narrator discusses extreme bodily disfigurements in clinical terms.

In ‘A Recognition of Devils’, a poem in four parts we have this from ‘Sheni’ ( a title which I think doubles as both name and number) – ‘this one likes to wear clothes / stolen from the locker / hides the shine of silver instruments / under stick-on plastic eyes / on his should know better face’.
The language is a mix of s/f/gangster speak and horror movie diction, a facet which underlines an overall sense of cinematic derivation, though these texts are highly literate in a mannered fashion and the various vocabularies are stimulating in a number of ways. These ‘devils’ are both secular and perhaps also ‘spiritual’ as there are also a number of poems which work with the iconography of Mary Magdalene, sexually charged pieces which are also feminist, earthy and full of dark materials:

          iv. Mary’s Bridle

          & she has been married a thousand times
          a million times more, in woods, in cars, on building sites
          in lifts, in offices, in her own bed

          in nightclub toilets & police cells
          in the barracks, behind her mum’s house
          in his head, payback for flirting
          for getting the answer right or wrong

          aren’t you tired of this shit whispers the Fifth
          I know a man who knows a man
          let’s buy you a gun. 

Banks is playing with the mythology around the dual nature of ‘Mary’ but in a very contemporary context which can be quite unnerving, even shocking still, the colloquial language and backdrop (pimping/pleasure-seeking/abusive) is filled with ambiguity and an assertive, questioning tone which nevertheless ‘revels in its own language use’ at the same time as describing a litany of disaster and dark manipulation. These poems make an uncomfortable read but the reader also has to admire the level of ‘aesthetic achievement’ here, which often feels at odds with the subject matter.

In ‘Last Rites’ we have the following, its final stanza:

          Not these guys, not this time,
          all performance, defence mechanism,
          drugs stolen from a veterinarian,
          mental illness, poor coping skills,
          some lack of role models, yes, call it this
          as you double lock the door.

This is a description of ‘an underworld’, a broken society, one which we don’t want to enter but which is all around us in an increasingly uncertain future. There is no judgmentalism here, I feel, but neither is this a sociological treatise. The aesthetic is streetwise, if at a distance, a depiction of how things are or can be in certain circumstances. DTR is not an easy read in one sense but perhaps a very topical one and there are certainly pleasures to be had in its language and in puzzling over its curiosity. This is I think, Annabel Banks’ first collection and it’s interesting to speculate where she might go next.

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019